By Don Rippert

Cannabis certitude. The seemingly inexorable march toward legalized marijuana in the United States continues unabated. A poll of 9,900 American adults conducted by the Pew Research Center from September 3 – 15, 2019 found that 67% of the respondents thought cannabis should be legalized. That’s five percentage points higher than Pew’s last poll on the subject conducted in 2018. Many state legislatures are acting on behalf of their constituents. Legal weed sales began last Sunday in Michigan and will commence on New Year’s Day in Illinois. At the federal level the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill legalizing marijuana at the federal level. As of today 33 states have legalized medical marijuana and 11 states have approved the sale of recreational marijuana to adults. Six more states seem very likely to make decisions on legalizing recreational marijuana in 2020 – Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, New Jersey and South Dakota. As legal marijuana becomes big business pundits are predicting the future of legal weed. Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics believe that medical marijuana will be legalized in every state by 2024 and recreational marijuana will be legal in 20 states by that date. Virginia is not among the 20.

Weed in the Old Ancient Pre-historic Dominion. Virginia is one of 15 states where marijuana is fully illegal. (Note: I do not count CBD oil sales as partial legalization). The first step on the long road to legalization is usually decriminalization. In 2018 Virginia’s General Assembly considered a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. It was killed along a purely party line vote in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.  In 2019 another decriminalization bill was considered. Virginia’s Republican leadership in the General Assembly couldn’t muster the minimal courage to take the 2019 bill to the full committee and killed it in sub-committee. Later that year the Republicans got their heads handed to them in the General Assembly election. What a surprise.  Now Democrats hold a trifecta in Virginia with control of the House, Senate and Governorship.  Once again, Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) is the patron for proposed legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. However, this year unlike the past, Ebbin’s party is in control.

The gathering storm – federal edition. As Virginia remains in its usual political state – entombed in amber – the rest of America marches on. National legalization has passed a sub-committee in the US House of Representatives. There is a strong likelihood that it will pass the whole house.  However, passage in the Senate is more problematic. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has been staunch in his opposition to legalizing marijuana. Employing a tactic well known to Virginia Republicans, McConnell won’t even allow the Senate to consider legalization bills. However, his recent meeting with cannabis industry executives and tour of a cannabis facility may indicate a thaw in his position. Regardless, passage of the “legalization” bill at the federal level would not make marijuana legal in Virginia. It would be legal at the federal level but each state would have to chart its own course. In other words, it would become a states’ rights issue.  Funny how the very Republicans who incessantly clamor for more and more states’ rights are the same politicians blocking this move to more states’ rights. Actually, it’s not funny. It’s the kind of two faced inconsistency that has Republicans losing power, prestige and elections across the country.

Standing on a sandbar as the tide rises, state edition. Virginia’s problems in remaining one of the few islands of prohibition don’t end with the feds. As more states decriminalize, legalize medical marijuana and legalize the recreational use of pot Virginia becomes surrounded. West Virginia has already passed laws legalizing medical marijuana. Yes, West Virginia is ahead of us.  Maryland has a robust medical marijuana program and has decriminalized possession. North Carolina decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977. Yes, 1977. However, it’s Washington, DC that could be the biggest issue for Virginia’s ongoing status as an isolated prohibition state. DC’s laws are a bastardization of what the City Council passes and what Congress will allow. In the case of marijuana, DC residents are allowed to possess, grow, give away and use marijuana for recreational purposes. However, due to a rider in a federal spending bill there can be no legal sales of marijuana in DC. That may soon change  The strongest opponent to marijuana sales in DC is Maryland’s lone Republican Congressman, Andy Harris. The “Harris Rider” in federal appropriation bills has prevented DC from developing a retail marijuana industry. However, with the 2018 Democratic take over of the House of Representatives Harris has backed down. If this holds DC will be come the first jurisdiction bordering Virginia with a legal retail market for marijuana. More on that in a moment.

“He who lives lives by the crystal ball soon learns to eat ground glass,”Edgar R Fielder. Virginia will decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in the 2020 General Assembly session.  However, there will be no legalization of either medical or recreational marijuana in that session.  The formation of a group to study legalization in Virginia is more likely than not.

The Rip wrap. If my predictions turn out to be true Virginia will be in a ridiculous muddle. Decriminalization is effectively legalization without a retail market. With a possession penalty lower than a typical parking ticket neither citizens nor police will pay much attention to the fact that marijuana possession is technically illegal. DC will establish retail markets putting legal purchases within easy reach of 35% of Virginians. On the positive side, marijuana arrests will decline (to near zero) which will reduce enforcement and incarceration costs.  On the negative side (according to some) marijuana use will increase. DC and various Mexican drug cartels will reap the majority of the economic benefit from Virginia’s increased consumption of marijuana. Worse, the lack of medical marijuana will prevent those suffering from various diseases getting doctor prescribed treatments they could get in 33 other states. It will also retard the development of a grow / dispensary ecosystem in Virginia. When the inevitable legalization occurs Virginia will, once again, find itself a day late and a dollar short on being able to capitalize on this completely foreseeable outcome. If this sounds familiar … it should. It was this same ossification of the General Assembly that let Charlotte (instead of Richmond) become America’s second largest banking center. The valley of death is full of the bones of those who hesitated at the moment of victory.

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21 responses to “Virginia marijuana reform: Outlook for 2020”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    Author’s note: Yes, it was a long post. But it’s also a complicated topic. Contrary to some living in Virginia’s past – we do not exist in a vacuum. The interplay of the federal government, other states and DC all affect Virginia.

  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    I don’t oppose legalization but wonder about the effects of inhaling.

    “Study: Men who smoke marijuana daily may increase risk of testicular cancer”

    Ouch. Given the push to legalize, who will the media blame if it turns out pot is bad for one’s health?

    1. djrippert Avatar

      It is bad for your health. Smoking anything is bad for you. Whether it’s better in edible form … I’d guess so but I don’t know so. However, I think it’s better for you than drinking, smoking tobacco or a steady diet of fast food. Moreover, it’s legalization is inevitable. Either Virginia gets moving and gets into the game or we miss yet another economic opportunity that could be very beneficial to rural areas of the state.

  3. John Harvie Avatar
    John Harvie

    DJR, it surely will be bad for your health when you are maimed in an accident with a driver on a pot high.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Or, far more likely, maimed by a drunk driver. A marijuana breathalyzer is due on the market in 2020. Also, I’ll let you in on a secret …. there are stoned people on the roads right now.

      1. idiocracy Avatar

        Yes, the stoned people are the ones sitting at the stop sign waiting for it to turn green.

  4. Is it time for Virginia legislators to start thinking about what reasonable regulations might be imposed as an accompaniment to legalization? You know… restricting sales to minors, taxation, funding of addiction programs, driving while under the influence, monitoring long-term impacts on health… that sort of thing. I’d feel a lot better about legalization if I knew that weed was subject to health and safety oversight.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Yes, it is absolutely time. Probably time to bring it into discussion on Bacon’s Rebellion too. The crony capitalists came out in force in New York and temporarily derailed that state’s decision to legalize. The social justice warriors are putting on a big show in places where pot has recently been considered for legalization. Lessons are being learned.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        Even the medical marijuana regulations vary significantly from state to state. Some states limit marijuana to treat a very few, very specific conditions. Other states allow for the treatment of “pain”, anxiety, etc. In other words, pretty much a free for all. Maryland has highway billboards advertising medical marijuana doctors. We’ll see what the Democrats do in Virginia in 2020. Will the party that believes a woman’s body should be only her concern when it comes to abortion decide that everybody’s body ought to be their concern when it comes to marijuana.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    All things equal , if someone maims you in their car – does it really matter if they were drinking alcohol, or oxycodone, or texting on their phone?

    If we want to deal with THAT issue – it would need to be on a basis that does not arbitrarily discriminate, so we have a law that says you are liable for your own behavior – not just arbitrary things.

    Having said that, I’m amused because we hear over and over from the anti-tax folks that taxpayers know better how to spend their money than the government!

    And that is the apparent premise behind the Virginia state policy of not allowing a locality to hold a referendum to increases taxes to fund a school! Let those taxpayers buy POT before they are required to fund schools!

    1. djrippert Avatar

      You were doing pretty well until you got to the last paragraph. It certainly will be illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana or under the influence of alcohol or when texting or without wearing your seat belt. And people are certainly doing all these things today. Better or more effective enforcement of all anti-dangerous driving laws would be a good idea. I rarely drive for an hour around here without seeing several episodes of suicidal / homicidal driving. Spend some of the pot tax windfall to better enforce all anti-dangerous driving laws.

      1. idiocracy Avatar

        It is ALREADY illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana, and I have already heard PSA adverts advising people of that.

    2. djrippert Avatar

      As for the last paragraph … ?

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    it’s a little of a tangent but I think relevant when talking about the right of people to spend their money on things they want rather than have that money go for taxes – which the Govt has decided are needed.

    The premise espoused here by the Conservative types is that anytime there is a “tax” on something that it detracts from citizens ability to make their own choices about what to spend their money on.

    And I just point out that those choices that people make – don’t necessarily reflect that citizens actually DO know “better” uses of that money if they decide………….

    this is a good example.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      It would be an interesting experiment to let taxpayers designate their own tax money to their preferred functions, leaving the agencies and programs that are not popular sucking for air. But to go back to an earlier comment, Larry, state and local taxpayers can and do have referendums on taxes and bonds all the time. What you cannot do in Virginia, not easily, is get the question on the ballot by petition.

      On the main point of this post, I agree, Virginia will move in this direction and might as well, since so many other states are/will and those states will cater to Virginians anyway. I’ve favored decriminalization of simple possession for a long time, but anybody going into the business of growing, processing or selling weed needs to be regulated closely and the bad actors need to continue facing incarceration. Now we’ll have tax rules to use to lock them up.

      Good luck finding a field sobriety test that can discriminate between pot and CBD, and good luck convincing a large block of employers that they now have to hire people with active pot use. This is about workplace accidents, too. Spotting a drunk at work is easier than spotting somebody high, in my experience. That’s one of the attractions of pot.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        I’ll post a future article on the state of the art for marijuana breathalyzers.

        As far as convincing a large block of employers that they now have to hire people with active pot use … they already do. And, even today, very few employers test for drug use – at time of employment or ongoing.

        “Overall, remarkably few jobs disclose that they require drug testing before confirming employment, or during employment. On average, only 1.47 percent of job postings in the U.S. mention that they require pre-employment drug tests.

        Even fewer jobs disclose that they require regular drug screenings during employment. On average, only 0.66 percent of job postings mention regular drug testing.”

        I would have no problem with employers who have legitimate safety issues at work banning marijuana use for employees. There are many such employment specific bans. For example, it is perfectly legal for an executive to have an ongoing affair with his or her secretary. However, most companies would fire you for doing so.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” state and local taxpayers can and do have referendums on taxes and bonds all the time. What you cannot do in Virginia, not easily, is get the question on the ballot by petition.”

    What Dick said was that the GA had to approve the locality to hold a referenda. I know there are other kinds they can hold without getting permission – so what is the distinction?

    re: tests to determine “sobriety”.

    Just to point out there are hundreds of legal medications that warn not to drive when taking them but how many of them do we test for? And how about other drugs? Do we test for PCP or Cocaine or Heroin or LSD or the hundreds of other illegal drugs.

    If we are going to do this “right” – there needs to be one policy with regard to driving while impaired – and not essentially use that law as a reason to block one particular drug or substance.

    I have no problem at all with an overall policy for all substances but I do have a problem with laws being selective for SOME substances but not others.

    And this does not even scratch the surface for those that cannot put their smartphones down while they drive. It’s like a disease. These
    folks, many of them are supposedly decent folks with jobs that require good judgement and when they get into a car – they turn into idiots.

    1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
      Peter Galuszka

      Willie Nelson is no longer toking

  8. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    On Friday (Nov. 29), KSAT-TV out of San Antonio, Texas, published a brief interview with Nelson under the headline “Willie Nelson says he’s no longer smoking marijuana due to breathing issues.” The country icon, who has dealt with emphysema and pneumonia on a recurring basis, and even underwent a stem cell operation to help his lungs in 2015, told the television station that he “do[esn’t] smoke anymore — take better care of myself.”

    “I have abused my lungs quite a bit in the past, so breathing is a little more difficult these days and I have to be careful,” Nelson shares. “I started smoking cedar bark, went from that to cigarettes to whatever. And that almost killed me.”

    Numerous news outlets picked KSAT’s story up, reporting that Nelson has given up smoking pot — but, the star’s son, singer-songwriter Lukas Nelson, clarifies, that’s not the whole story. Just because he’s given up smoking doesn’t mean Nelson has stopped using marijuana once and for all.

    “It’s almost 2020, how people ingest cannabis has changed,” the younger Nelson writes. “Between vaping, edibles, gummies, drops, etc. I think it’s safe to say Willie will never stop enjoying Mary Jane!”

    Nelson, a longtime advocate for the legalization of marijuana, founded his own line of weed-focused products in 2015 …”

    For more see:


  9. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Reed. Got any gummies? Thanks. Peter

  10. Has any progress been made on testing for driving under the influence (while high)? This was one of the issues causing some problems in other states.

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